Cinema’s Greatest Scenes: #5 The Offence
Every Friday I’m going to be highlighting and analysing some of cinema’s greatest scenes, or sequences depending on your definition. Some will be familiar, etched indelibly into the iconography of cinema, while others will be obscurer moments worthy of wider circulation and attention.For this week’s entry it’s the original Bond, Sean Connery, like you’ve never seen him before in The Offence…
* Spoilers Ahead *
The Film: The Offence (1972)
Director: Sidney Lumet
The Background: Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery) is at breaking point. Witnessing unspeakable evils for twenty years in the line of duty has left him cantankerous, cynical and volatile. When suspected paedophile Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen) is brought in to custody Johnson can no longer contain his brewing daemons. Johnson explodes during Baxter’s interrogation and is promptly sent home with an immediate suspension.
The Scene: Johnson returns home to his high-rise apartment late at night. Plagued by horrific images of the past and hazy memories of his confrontation with Baxter, he comforts himself the only way he knows how; with a strong drink. Johnson’s indiscrete clattering wakes his wife Maureen (Vivien Merchant) who walks right into her husband’s temperamental state.
What Makes it Great?
The Offence, certainly an obscure entry in the canon of both Connery and Lumet, is a film built on brilliant performances. There are three absolutely outstanding scenes that pit protagonist (antagonist?) Johnson, Sean Connery in a drastic departure from his usual debonair self, against his wife, his superior officer and the suspect who plagues him. Each extended exchange is an intense masterclass in cinematic performance, but for the purpose of this blog I’ve honed in specifically on the riveting domestic battle with his spouse.
The scene, as well as the film, is all about Connery’s performance, but he flourishes because of his effective sparring partners. While suspect Baxter and Lieutenant Cartwright (Trevor Howard) prove to be more than a match for Johnson’s overbearing aggression, his mousey wife, courtesy of a superb turn from Merchant, is tragically trampled by her husband’s frightful state. While the camera remains a steady observer there’s a conscious effort to position Connery as the dominate presence at all times. Throughout the kinetic exchange, which moves freely through the apartment, we always seem to be following Connery unable to escape his magnetic presence. When he does finally stop prowling the flat, he fills the frame by blocking the camera on close ups and constantly moves to the forefront of compositions. It’s a subtle reflection of his position within the relationship – he’s the oppressor constantly bearing down on his downtrodden wife.
The distance between the couple during their arguments fluctuates wildly like the tide, but we become most aware of the camera’s position when they inhabit the extremities of the frame. Lumet and cinematography Gerry Fisher cleverly utilise the depth and width of the room to emphasis the literal and mental distance between the couple. When Maureen and Johnson slump into opposing chairs (see above) there’s a gaping chasm left between them, all of a sudden it’s as if they inhabit completely different lives, films, or even worlds. Similarly, there’s an innocuous moment where the clever composition allows Johnson’s whisky bottle, at the forefront of the shot, to dwarf his wife in the back of the shot, a sad reflection on his shifting priorities.
We can talk about Lumet’s delicate compositions and choreography, but the scene is really all about Connery’s performance. While he’ll always be revered and remembered as the original, and best, James Bond, it’s in The Offence that he produces his most admirable piece of acting. Throughout the sequence he’s tetchy and erratic; he’s constantly on the move, he flits between reflection and vitriol, grins then cries. This is a man on the brink, completely losing track of whom or what he is anymore. Connery could easily lapse in to overblown parody (imagine Jack Nicholson in the role!), but he’s careful to balance the manic moments with the sympathetic. The increasingly sinister, almost beguiling, antics of Johnson are matched by Connery’s physical traits, a muscular frame, that distinctive voice and a burning gaze, which immediately position him as genuinely threatening and irresistible.
John Hopkin’s original play, This Story of Yours, provides the script and presents Johnson with some cracking dialogue. The focal narrative that Johnson is morally shattered is handled vividly through a hypnotic recounting of the atrocities he’s encountered, however it’s his insults that hit hardest. Johnson subjects his pitiful wife to a torrent of abuse; “you look like an electric blanket tied together with a bit of old rope, “[you] keep bleating on, like a sheep with a six inch knife stuck up it” and, most biting, “Why aren’t you beautiful? Not even pretty.” It’s these insults, given extra clout through Connery’s gritted articulation, that evaporate our sympathies and we begin to see Johnson as nothing more than a nasty bully. We’ve seen bent coppers before, but Johnson is enough to make The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle blush.
Adapting plays into films is always a tricky task, just watch The Ides of March or Carnage. Often the dialogue heavy focus and lack of dynamic sets creates a dull spectacle on screen that fails to capture the theatrical energy. With Lumet in charge, a director who loved his characters and structured his films to let them shine, The Offence and Connery thrive cinematically. Lumet’s subtle compositions, energy with the camera and understanding of Connery’s ability to astound are all at work wonderfully in this sequence. Once you’ve looked into Connery’s bulging, desperate, eyes you’ll never see Bond quite the same again.